Speculative Frameworks: Approaching the Interwar Years Work of Shinsaku Izumi and Nakaji Yasui
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Two photographs, one by Shinsaku Izumi (1880–1941) and the other by Nakaji Yasui (1903–1942), are studies in motion. In The Shadow (c. 1931), Izumi plays with the late-afternoon light, picturing a man riding a bike. In the upper-right-hand corner of the image, we see part of the front wheel; the entire rear wheel; the bicycle seat; and the cyclist’s feet, perfectly balanced and planted on pedals, riding past our line of vision. The rest of the image shows the bike traveling past a rectangular manhole cover, on the left side; and, on the right, the front wheel appears prominently as it casts a long shadow, with the individual spokes disappearing with each rotation. Against the brushed surface of the street, hard and soft patterns of gray emerge diagonally across the image. Although the bike is seen clearly in motion moving right off the page, next to Speed (c. 1932–39), it seems also to be at a standstill.
deposited to Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe.
In Speed, the long engine of a black automobile is foregrounded in the bottom three quarters of the image, the front window seemingly spray painted in white. On the horizon line, whizzing past the black car, is the blur of an elongated white automobile. Almost painterly, the sfumato effect of the white car, in combination with the out-of-focus scenery in the far background, creates a dizzying, almost disorienting effect.
In contrast to the feeling of openness in The Shadow, the compressed composition of Speed evokes an ominous mood in which the drivers in the car and passersby in the background are nowhere to be seen. The muscular black car is suggestive, symbolizing perhaps Japan’s rapid progress to modernization — including a nascent automobile industry that began in the 1930s. At the same time, Speed shares with The Shadow a study of motion, light, and shadow, and, on another level, a metaphysical commentary on “the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life.”
Before he joined the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC), in 1935, the Japanese American photographer Shinsaku Izumi’s Tunnel of Night was included in the club’s impressive 1931 publication, The Pictorialist. Not much else is known about him, however, in comparison to what we know about Yasui Nakaji, a Japanese photographer born and raised in Osaka and known to be not only a leader of a number of major photography clubs but also a model of originality in his making of modernist photography. Exhibiting widely throughout Japan in the 1920s and publishing prolifically in the 1930s, Yasui seemed to be on the cutting edge, a pioneer experimenting with a wide range of styles until his untimely death at the age of forty-two.
My initial impulse in writing about these two artists — Yasui and Izumi — was to make visible their beautiful, compelling photographic images that to this day are still rarely displayed or discussed. Aside from a shared Japanese ancestry, the artists have a number of other commonalities, among them being actively engaged in their photographic practice in the 1930s and their too-early deaths in 1941. The methods needed to compare, let alone make visible, these photographs include approaching them within or through nationalist or ethnic frameworks; tracking the historical development of their work in order to show originality and precedence; and inserting the artists retroactively into an established canon of modern art, perhaps by showcasing them in conjunction with other Euro-American works made during the interwar years. Guided by an incentive to utilize a more transnational approach (and to imagine Asian American and Asian artists in some sort of relationship, imagined or otherwise), how can we reconstruct these artworks in alternative ways, within a transnational and diasporic context, in a way that avoids falling into essentialist readings of the work? What would it mean to juxtapose photographs that do not outwardly possess a Japanese or pan-Asian sensibility within imagined representations of diaspora without falling into essentialist readings of the work, engaging, for example, in new forms of ethno-Orientalism?
Comparing and situating these artists as part of an alternative community of artists, beyond their ethnicity and national identity, and engaged in a form of international modernism, or ensconced as part of a nascent Asian art diaspora is challenging due to issues of translation, lack of access to archival material, and in the case of Asian American artists, including Japanese American artists who made work during the interwar years, the scarcity or even the absence of the work itself. I see the primary aim of the present essay as a call to future scholars, curators and collectors to take up these challenges and rigorously curate and write about these overlooked artists; tracking the specific ways modernism contradictorily took root and was engaged in the artists’ local situations, modifying and perhaps even overturning the ways we think about not just American and Japanese art and modernism, but also the political, cultural, and economic relationship between the United States and Japan and between Europe and Japan. The following are three propositions. I outline the challenges and limitations of each.
1. Forgotten Pioneers of Modern Photography
The photographs by Izumi and Yasui share a formal coherence. The images selected here inflect a sophisticated style and mood analogous to modernist photography practices. In general, modernism is defined as a set of aesthetic movements that foreground breaks from tradition and experiments with form. On another level, modernism is defined as a counter and even oppositional response to “the maelstrom of modern life”: modernity’s push for epochal societal transformations in combination with an increasingly rigid disciplinary system. Over the past decade, a number of scholars have pressed for the need to challenge western modernity as a universal phenomenon and to adopt an “alternative” or “multiple” modernities perspective.
Grounded in an understanding that “modernity always unfolds within a specific cultural or civilization context and that different starting points for the transition to modernity lead to different outcomes,” an “alternative modernities” approach also pays attention to similarities between, in this case, U.S. and Japanese modernities. Taking place during a tumultuous and tense time in Japanese and Asian American history, Yasui’s and Izumi’s photographic practice compels viewers to examine modernist practices situated between two competing neo-imperialist nations rather than in the colonial periphery.
Dramatically transforming itself in an unprecedented push to modernize, Japan was at war with Russia and China, and, later, the United States in a constant struggle to meet an increasing need for natural resources and to attain legitimacy among its expanding colonies and the “Great Powers.” Given Japan’s peripheral location within western hegemony at the time and scholarship on modernity which focuses solely on the development of Japanese modernity as outside or as belated to western modernity, attention needs to be paid to its “creative adaptation” and development of modernity and imperialism as well as the “elusive and fragmentary band of similarities [between Japan and the United States] that surface unexpectedly on the axis of divergence[,] similarities [that] may be seen in the style of the flâneur, the mystique of fashion, the magic of the city, the ethos of irony, or the anxiety of mimicry — all ineffable yet recognizable across the noise of difference.”As highlighted in The History of Japanese Photography (2003), a landmark exhibition at the Museum of Houston that displayed more than two hundred photographs produced between 1860 and 2003, photography served as an integral medium to capture and promote the zeitgeist of Japanese modernity. Pointing to Japan’s long history and commitment to photography, the number of local camera clubs and national photographic associations in existence before the 1940s, and the import of major exhibitions such as Film und Foto (1929) that toured throughout Japan, The History of Japanese Photography also revealed a simultaneous dynamism of photographic activity commensurate with European, Russian, and American art practice.
In the vanguard of Japan’s version of Shinko Shashin (new photography) and Zen’ei Shashin (avant-garde photography), Yasui deployed a wide range of innovative techniques and styles. He played with flatness and depth and created photographs through solarization, reverse tonalities, combination prints, and multiple long exposures. He was also a founding member of Ginreisha, a group that formed in 1927 with the aim to focus on experimenting with new techniques of art photography. Yasui’s Water (1931) exemplifies the creative innovation that was taking place in Japan. Against a black background that evokes both flatness and depth, an explosive splash of short vertical and diagonal white lines, dots, and clots fills the frame. Calling to mind a Jackson Pollock drip painting, the photograph could also be seen as a negative documentation of the tide rolling in under a pier, the aftermath of a car driving through a large pool of water, a star-filled sky in which the thick mass of white specks against the black void could be read as a lyrical expression of infinity and the sublime.
41.6 x 54.6 cm
deposited to Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe.
Sharing with Yasui a spirited engagement with photography and a similar orchestration of black and white elements is Izumi’s stunning Tunnel of Night (c. 1931). Deftly handling multiple light sources and taking advantage of the flying buttresses and white tiles that make up the structure of the Second Street Tunnel in downtown Los Angeles, Tunnel of Night is a choreographed, symphonic composition of lights and motion. The headlights of passing cars blur with the lights in this transitional space, creating a reflective, cellophane-like surface. A repetitious series of partly scratched-out arcs or semicircles — ocean-like wave patterns that rise and fall in sync against the wall of the tunnel — converge onto the diagonal ray from the headlights of an oncoming car, where the tunnel and road meet, in which the tunnel is transformed into an otherworldly space.
Tunnel of Night, c. 1931
34.3 x 27.2 cm
Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum.
Side by side, the contrasting styles of The Shadow and Tunnel of Night, photographs Izumi developed in approximately the same year, not only reflect the range of his personal expression and technique as a photographer-artist, but also recall a number of avant-garde styles and influences, such as early works by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the techniques of defamiliarization embraced by László Moholy-Nagy.
Prescient in his understanding of modernist photography as a global phenomenon, Moholy-Nagy included in his “manifesto” — The New Vision: From Material to Architecture (1938) — works such as Shigemi Uyeda’s Reflections on the Oil Ditch (1925), a sepia-toned close-up of an oil field, broken up by a series of circles, ovals, and pebble-like shapes in the aftermath of a rainstorm. Yet the inclusion of Uyeda, a contemporary of Izumi, as an example of Moholy-Nagy’s “new vision” does not take into consideration the artist’s larger body of work in which Reflections could be seen as a nod to industry and technology, but also to the wonders of nature. Acutely sensitive to form, with an uncanny sense of timing, Uyeda in Reflections on the Oil Ditch warmly and lucidly captures less the essence of an object than a moment. Taking advantage of the dramatic light, Uyeda’s trompe l’oeil–-like etching of each puddle and the blurred reflection of the derrick in one of them is intriguingly painterly, an artistic move that challenges Moholy-Nagy’s attitude toward photography, which was seen in part as chipping away painting’s mannerisms to render the world objectively.
Reflections on the Oil Ditch, c. 1925
34.6 x 26.9 cm
Stephen White Gallery, Los Angeles.
Conceptually aligned with Moholy-Nagy’s “new vision,” in particular photography’s ability to capture the external world in a way the human eye could not, the works by Yasui, Izumi, and Uyeda can and should be seen in juxtaposition with the work of Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Patzch, Edward Weston, and many other Euro-American artists. Dennis Reed notes, however, in a catalog essay for his exhibition Japanese Photography in America, 1920–1940 (1986) that Izumi and other Japanese American artists were not actively promoting “the manifestos or polemics typical of the avant-garde.” I interpret this cautionary note to mean that there may indeed be much overlap in the formal elements that make up the photographs of Yasui, Izumi, and Uyeda and of, for example, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, and Weston, but to frame these works within a set of established narratives on the avant-garde, such as Moholy-Nagy’s ideas on photography, threatens to impose a reading that is partial at best and excludes alternative or more complicated readings that take into consideration local specificities of the historical and cultural conditions in which the artworks were created.
Here it is important to ask: What productive questions emerge if we see these artworks not just as interpretations of modernization, but also as inflections of modernity’s impact on human perception and the consequential shift in one’s relationship to the material and natural world and the social world as well? To put it another way: How are these artists engaging with transformations wrought by modernization, which includes not only urbanization and industrialization, but also an implicit engagement of a nationalist-fascist turn in Japan and in the United States a nationalist-nativist turn?
By 1941, due to an intensified militarized milieu, a number of photography clubs in Japan were being pressured to fold, but Yasui and other members of the Tampei Photography Club began to document Eastern European Jewish refugees in Kobe. The images in Wandering Jew reveal possible conflicting ideologies with the Japanese imperial state, which can be seen as a prescient exploration of the costs of these nationalist ideologies in ways that hold particular resonance in the lives of Japanese Americans.
2. The Politics of Modernist Form
Due to the tireless efforts of Gordon Chang and Mark Johnson, among many others, and support by institutions such as Stanford University, the de Young Museum, and the Japanese American National Museum, Uyeda and Izumi and other marginalized Asian American artists have become more visible, seen as integral threads of an extensive transnational and cosmopolitan web of artists, performers, and writers who were engaged in creative collaborations and political activities, especially during the inter-war years. The book Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970 (2008), edited by Chang, Johnson, and Paul Karlstrom, and the exhibition Asian/American/Modern/Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970 not only reveal an active and creative presence of Asian American artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — a period of time in which the American press ignored or portrayed them as alien industrial automatons or depraved heathens — but also “evidence” of how Asian Americans saw the world and related to it.
From another perspective, Izumi and Uyeda need to be seen as part of a growing diaspora resulting from Japan’s colonial expansion and geopolitical relations between the United States and Japan. While arguably thriving in the 1920s and ’30s, Japanese Americans were also increasingly politically displaced and isolated — due to the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 and then the economic downturn caused by the Great Depression — as they saw the gradual loss of their businesses and farms, culminating in the Japanese internment beginning in 1942. In the face of racial tensions and impending injunctions, however, Izumi and other Japanese American photographers, such as Uyeda and Hiromu Kira, could freely wander throughout Los Angeles county, filtering and capturing it as a place of wonder and contemplation through their imaginative lens. How do we begin to make sense of these disjunctive and contradictory situations and conditions?
One way to begin a deeper historical and aesthetic inquiry into how Japanese and United States imperialism served as a constitutive presence in the structure of these modernist photographs is to draw from Fredric Jameson’s oft-cited essay on modernism and imperialism in combination with Colleen Lye’s conceptualization of racial form. Appropriating Raymond William’s study of relations and the activities among these relations in producing different and specialized cultural modes that create meaning and value in a civil society, Lye’s study of racial form analyzes the construction of different kinds of racism, such as the stereotype of the Asian American as alien and foreign. Taking this concept further in an attempt to historicize Asian American literature in light of the challenges posed by a return to formalism or the turn to “new formalism,” Lye’s writings have inspired a number of Asian American literary scholars, among them Josephine Park and Christopher Lee, to trace how different types of Orientalism impact the formal elements of a poem or novel: how an author, for example, uses particular kinds of style and structure to imagine a place — Asia, America, Asian America — or craft a particular world.
Analogous to studies on responses to the city and machine as generating particular perceptual problems and inspiring new narrative techniques, these scholars not only pay close attention to an author’s devices but also the production of alternative representational techniques. For example, Lee’s recent book The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature (2012) analyzes how a novelist creates a semblance of reality. Whereas Lee tracks the arc of a protagonist, for example in Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life — asking how the main character becomes aware of his own conditions, agency, and his limits of resistance — and keeping in mind that particular choices correspond with or counter particular styles and even the medium itself, I ask how we might look closely at a photograph’s properties in a similar way. That is, how might we begin to see the making of these images by Yasui, Uyeda, and Izumi as the result of multiple influences and legacies, perhaps Japanese American Pictorialism, Japonism, and other genres of traditional Japanese painting, trajectories that have been seen as distracting or have been used to exclude such works from the conversation on modernism and outside the canon?
Already taking up Lye’s call, Dennis Reed’s exhibitions and publications on early Japanese American photography explore the historical dimensions of formal elements in early Japanese photography, citing how Japanese American photographers were not only familiar with German photography through the circulation of such magazines and annuals as Das Deutsche Litchbild and Photofreund Jahrbuch , but were also integrating elements of haiku and Japanese art traditions such as ukiyo-e into their photo making practice. The images selected for this essay are intriguingly painterly, even decorative, but they are also clearly a departure from Pictorialism. If the artists were not actively in dialogue with “the manifestos or polemics typical of the avant-garde,” then in what issues and concerns were they engaging? And with whom? Is it too implausible to imagine Yasui and Izumi convening at a monthly meeting organized by Toyo Miyatake at the Tomoe Hotel or meeting at Shakudo-Sha, a collective whose primary aim was to engage the topic of modern art, at the same time honoring the integrity of Japanese traditions? Transnational encounters were not impossible as travel between the United States and Japan was fluid (Japanese people living in America could leave and return). With their shared interest in photography, what might they have talked about? What ideas and techniques might they have exchanged? Or more realistically, what are the chances of Yasui encountering the work of Uyeda in a magazine? What of encounters with the work of other Japanese American photographers in the First International Photographic Salon in Tokyo in 1927? No doubt privy to a number of resources beyond the local, Yasui must have perused foreign photography trade publications and glossy magazines and engaged with other practitioners, either through group discussions or during studio critiques. Which visiting Euro-American artists did Yasui meet at the photography clubs — Naniwa, Ginreisha, Tampei — to which he belonged? What did members talk about during their monthly meetings? What similarities or differences characterized the conversations from club to club? How might we take into account Yasui’s activity in the studio and in the darkroom, places of creative expression, where he was free from the intensifying pressures of a growing fascist movement?
3. Queering and Exposing
Such questions require us to ask and answer different types of critical questions, different categories of inquiry. My last proposition contradicts and challenges the project of looking at these marginalized artists as part of an alternative art community, beyond their ethnicity and national identity, and engaged in a form of international modernism or ensconced as part of a nascent Asian art diaspora. While I am convinced that looking at these Japanese and Japanese American photographers transnationally makes sense, and points to the need for a closer, more thoughtful analysis of their images, what does it mean to position them within a Japanese or Asian diasporic context?
In general, diaspora is defined as group of people who are scattered, living in suspension; displaced from a home to which they can no longer return or that no longer exists. Recent scholarship has expanded this definition. For example, Brent Edwards urges scholars to approach diaspora as a practice. Others, such as Ranajit Guha, ask whether diaspora is “a place or simply a region of the mind,” a question we can interpret as both simple and complicated and which inverts diaspora in such a way that reveals all of what it signifies, akin to Deleuze’s concept of “the fold”: distance, displacement, otherness, and nostalgia. In his essay on modernism and imperialism, Jameson’s readings of Virginia Woolf’s novels revolve around themes of the anxiety of belonging, the loss of boundaries, and the meaning of home. Recent scholarship in queer studies not only challenges the ideologies underpinning the nation as home, but also the meaning of home and its boundaries. Combining queer theory’s destabilization of identities in which the concept of queer diaspora includes “recuperating those desires, practices, and subjectivities that are rendered impossible and unimaginable within conventional diasporic and nationalist imaginaries” with recent writings on queer time and Louis Kaplan’s writings on community-exposed photography, how might we see Japanese and Japanese Americans’ picture-making as a means to express an alternative way of being beyond the barriers of race and nation?
Attuned to the “temporal rhythms and trajectories of the nation-state, capitalist production and even non-nationalist cultural belonging,” might we see photography as enabling Japanese and Japanese American artists to reveal the limits of their community, circumscribed by racism and imperialism, perhaps even to transcend or transgress the boundaries? How might we approach their act of photography as a means to liberate their bodies from the tyranny of time and space? Instead of trying to place them in some kind of determinate, identifiable community — be it a nation, an Asian diaspora, or even a collective of photographers — might we see their photography as a way of relating and communicating to the world, even communing with it, but also a refusal to be circumscribed by it?
Both theories on queer diaspora and Kaplan’s approach to community-exposed photography (that draws much of its conceptualization from Jean-Luc Nancy’s, Jacques Derrida’s, and Giorgio Agamben’s writings on community) question the “in” of being in common, the ties that bind a community. Corresponding to the metaphysics of exposure with the act of photography, Kaplan describes portraits by Nan Goldin and Nikki S. Lee as making visible a set of boundaries and limits, the impossibility of community. In other words, counter to Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, the core of community according to Nancy is finitude. It is only in death that a community can be formed.
The photographs by Yasui, Izumi, and Uyeda are not portraits and are unconcerned with death, per se. Stripped down, almost to abstraction, the photo’s indexical trace, on one level is still discernible. But if we approach the photographs through an inoperative community framework, then what is pictured in the images by Yasui, Izumi, and Uyeda is not an index of an event or an object; what is pictured is instead the aftermath of an unpredictable interaction between the natural and the man-made, similar to the chemical reaction that occurs when film is exposed to light. An interruption of the present, the images are not about an individual’s rendering of the world, but rather a modest singular experience of radically and mindfully seeing the world differently and then letting go. The images’ uniform geometric patterns (in Uyeda’s Reflections) and repeated lines (in Yasui’s Water) connote both a limitlessness but also simultaneously, a sensation of fluidity: a finite moment that in the next shot has already disappeared.
The iterability of the photographs and the juxtaposition of the photographers’ works have led me to pose a number of questions whose answers remain incomplete yet which I think complicate our notions of modernism and American art, Japanese art and Asian American art. At the same time, I hope that offering these speculative frameworks promotes not only the work of these photographers, but also promotes them in the spirit of their art making, an active way of looking at the world through light.
Susette Min is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis where she teaches Asian American studies, art history, cultural studies, and curatorial studies. She is also an independent curator. Her book, Unnamable Encounters: The Ends of Asian American Art will be published by New York University Press in 2015.
And on a personal note, the essay is my way of honoring my friend and colleague Karin Higa, whose scholarship on Asian American modern and contemporary art was always sharp and insightful and needs to be not only remembered, but also engaged and expanded upon. Over the years, beginning with her presentation of Japanese American art made in internment camps and then on to the many excellent exhibitions she curated at the Japanese American National Museum and elsewhere, along with her prolific writings about artists, Karin was constructing her own archive, uncovering and championing a number of Asian American artists who were hidden in plain sight. Her generosity in sharing her knowledge and her commitment to these artists, contextualizing them in multiple ways, continues to be an inspiring model.
Mark Johnson in an email written to me on September 23, 2014 points out how a number of Japanese artists such as “early painters like Sabro Hasegawa, Teikichi Hikoyama, Yoshida Sekido, Yotoku Miyagi and even Obata went back and forth during the period between the wars - so I suspect that the photographers did too. It even seems likely that’s why some disappear from the record in the 1930s (like the painters).”
In contrast to writings on Izumi’s work and practice, much is known about the making of Reflections on the Oil Ditch; the image was printed in a number of publications, such as Photograms of the Year (1927). In American Annual of Photography (1930), Uyeda describes how he created it: “This was taken in cold weather, so cold that the oil ditch had hardened up. On this hardened oil it rained for about one minute in the afternoon and the rain did not sink through but collected into circles. It was so beautiful that afternoon that I ached to take the picture. There was not enough light, so I got up the next morning at sunrise.” Dennis Reed, Japanese Photography in America, 1920-1940, (Los Angeles: Japanese American Cultural Center, 1986), 53.
See Frederic Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism” in Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said’s Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990) and Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Pictorialist photography emulated impressionist paintings, with their “brushy handling and luminous atmospheric effects” and an emphasis on the “expressive qualities of the picture’s elements.” Maria Morris Hambourg and Christopher Phillips The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), 3-4.
This line of inquiry is inspired by Brent Edwards’s groundbreaking research in The Practice of Diaspora. Here he looks at the black transnational culture between New York and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s in order to uncover overlooked connections, conversations, and collaborations within the black diaspora. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).